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Swimmer Up to the Challenge

October 26, 2000|From Associated Press

SYDNEY, Australia — Swimming a few laps of the pool is tough enough. Imagine doing it without hands or feet.

For U.S. Paralympian Melanie Benn, it has become just another challenge to be conquered.

Despite having both arms amputated below the elbow and both legs amputated below the knee after contracting meningococcemia, a rare bacterial infection, Benn chose swimming as her No. 1 sport.

And now, about 12 months after starting competitive swimming, she has already picked up a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle relay at the Sydney Paralympics.

"Hey, just being here is something I never expected," she said. "Getting a silver medal is a bonus."

Benn, 23, was like any college freshman at Humboldt State in Northern California until she developed the rare bacterial infection.

"It was devastating . . . I was 18," Benn said Wednesday while taking a breather from training at the Sydney International Aquatic Center, where the Olympics were also staged last month.

About 3,000 people in the United States are diagnosed each year with the bacterial infection, and 10% die.

"I was enjoying college, doing what you do--late nights, bad food," she said. "It struck me out of the blue. I don't know how I contracted it. Doctors say it can happen by sharing a drink or having someone sneeze near you."

The symptoms started showing when she was at home in San Diego with her family during semester break. Her body shut down the supply of blood to its extremities, causing the flesh to die.

Over two weeks, her limbs were amputated. Her kidney also failed, and she needed dialysis for 12 months.

Benn, who recently completed an undergraduate psychology degree and has begun work on a master's degree in social welfare at UCLA, has had to relearn everything, from walking on artificial legs to brushing her hair.

Now highly skilled on her prosthetics, she likes nothing better than to discard her artificial legs and arms and dive in for a swim.

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